Alvin Sallay

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 15 May, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 15 May, 2011, 12:00am


The champagne has been drunk and the celebrations are over but the party is just beginning for Kitchee, who last week were crowned Hong Kong First Division league champions after an excruciating 47-year wait. And to their credit, there was no sign of a hangover afterwards, as shown by Kitchee's pledge to put country before club by promising that all their players would be available for national duty.

There have been many instances in the past where clubs, and some famous ones too, have stopped their players from representing Hong Kong because of club commitments. Kitchee boss Ken Ng Kin would have none of that nonsense. A few days ago, he promised the club's Hong Kong representatives would be available for selection for the 2014 World Cup Asian zone qualifier in July, despite a clash with the Barclays Asia Trophy.

By winning the league, Kitchee earned the right to represent Hong Kong in the four-team Barclays Asia Trophy, which will also feature Chelsea, Aston Villa and Blackburn Rovers. Chelsea might not arrive boasting the tag of English Premier League champions, but they will still be a huge drawcard and the chance to play against these giants of football is nothing to be sneezed at.

Yet Ng has taken a pragmatic and sensible approach, saying the club would demand their players put the World Cup ahead of playing in a glamour game.

The problem has arisen because of a date clash. The Barclays Asia Trophy takes place at Hong Kong Stadium on July 27 and 30. Sandwiched between these dates is the World Cup qualifier against Saudi Arabia on July 28 at Siu Sai Wan Stadium.

Kitchee captain Lo Kwan-yee is one of the players caught in the mix. He said it was the dream of many local players to go up against a famous club like Chelsea. After all, you don't get the chance to play against the likes of John Terry, Didier Drogba or Frank Lampard every day. 'However, we also know the importance of the World Cup qualifiers because you are representing Hong Kong. And I think we will have to follow the club's decision as the Hong Kong team is always our top priority,' Lo said.

Apart from Lo, the other Kitchee players who might miss out on the Barclays Asia Trophy are midfielders Lam Ka-wai and Gao Wen, and forwards Chu Siu-kei and Cheng Siu-wai.

Kitchee president Ng is a firm believer the head should rule over every other part of the body, and said it was important for the club to support the national team. 'The Asia Trophy is important, but it is only an exhibition event,' said Ng, adding that the club would sign guest players to fill the roles of Lo & Co.

How refreshing to hear a senior sports official get his priorities right. Hong Kong has many instances of sporting tournaments of a similar nature, where overbearing officials act as if the event is the bee's knees. We have tennis events where people think they are at Wimbledon rather than remembering it is just an exhibition. The Barclays Asia Trophy is just that.

While it will offer Chelsea, Aston Villa and Blackburn an opportunity to limber up before the new season, it is nothing more than a chance for the players to let their hair down, have some fun and . . . even play some football. There is nothing hinging on the outcome. If you win, you smile; if you lose, you still smile. But World Cup qualifiers are a different matter. Hong Kong might not get far against the might of Saudi Arabia, who have played in four World Cups, the last one being in Germany in 2006.

Fearing the clash might have an impact on the Barclays Asia Trophy, the Hong Kong Football Association had asked the Asian Football Confederation if the dates of the home and away legs could be switched. Hong Kong are due to play away on July 23, and the HKFA had asked if the home leg could be played on this day and the away game on July 28. The request was tuned down.

Fans will surely turn up to watch the English Premier League teams, so it will be the World Cup qualifier that suffers. The fact that it is being played at Siu Sai Wan Stadium, too, will have an impact on the attendance. We can only hope the ardent fan will support both events.

For Kitchee, though, the party is just starting. As league champions, they will represent Hong Kong in the AFC Cup next season. It will be a magnificent adventure. It remains to be seen what approach Ng and his club will adopt but it is unlikely they will follow in the footsteps of South China, who spent millions on acquiring the services of Nicky Butt and Mateja Kezman in a bid to boost the team. It was a brave gamble, but one which ended in failure.

I can't see Ng splurging big bucks to get a couple of big names. He is more a believer in taking small, but sure steps and will mostly rely on his Spanish armada to guide Kitchee through the AFC Cup.

Signs of his pragmatic approach are already evident - putting country before club. A lesson everyone in Hong Kong should learn.